Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Too Much Drama, Too Little Effect

I am often astonished and appalled by the increasing amount of phony drama being all but inescapably paraded before us every day.  The juvenile and farcical creation of heroes and villains, of success and failure, and of winners and losers in these awful performances are as spurious as they're sad.

No I'm not talking about the bogus build up generated during the hackneyed and unimaginative (everything but) reality shows that dominate television these days, but about the ever increasing amount frenzy that the political parties and pundits seem to want to find in the run up to the 2012 election.  Of course the campaigns have now drug on so long that perhaps the only way they feel that they can keep the voter's interest is to manufacture a bit of hysteria where each of the candidates is concerned, but the hype of such histrionics cannot be confused with actual interest.

Like a movie director frantically attempting to keep an audience on the edge of their seats for the entire ninety minutes of the movie, all they end up doing is exhausting their audience.  Unable to build higher or even maintain the necessary anxiety for months instead of minutes, they've left all but the most fervent supporters bored with the process, wishing they'd gotten a larger bucket of popcorn so they'd have something to distract themselves with, and waiting for the final credits to roll so that they can escape a theater that's become little more than a prison.

Apparently however, a media that's already gone too far down the path of synthetic stimulation in its offerings to return, and either can't see or refuses to acknowledge that their audience is now mostly unmoved by the shabby performances being given by the bad actors who've taken the stage.  Only the critics (pundits) still seem enamored of the process and able to maintain any enthusiasm (perhaps because they're paid to) for a political puppet show that's gone on for far too long already.  Their continued attempts to exploit any crumbs of excitement dropped in their path are as inept as they are futile.

Perhaps the problem is simply that in today's version of entertainment (and they've turned this process into little else), people are used to far more variety.  If you don't like the reality shows, you can watch the game shows.  If those don't tickle your fancy you can watch a mystery series, a situation comedy, or a classic movie. Food is much the same.  If a steak isn't on your menu of choice, have a cheeseburger.  If you aren't interested in chicken, go Chinese or Mexican or Thai.  The veritable cornucopia of choices laid before us in every aspect of today's society is as varied as it's vast; and even with all of this potpourri available, we often find it difficult to choose.

Not so in politics however.  Not only do many of the candidates begin to run together like the ice cream in the bottom of the bowl on a banana split, but it doesn't take long for us to realize that none of them seems to be different from the others.  The miserable morass that congeals at the bottom of the bowl becomes little more than a tired memory of flavor, little more than imagined by the media serving them.  Sadly in the end, the dish proves mostly tasteless, even while being served in heaping quantities for no other reason than disguise the lack of substance. 

For beyond the individual candidates, we're ultimately left with the same two tired choices that we've looked at for a century.  Oh there once may have been actual differences between Democrats and Republicans, but these days it all seems to taste like chicken, and rubber chicken at that. Voters, long starved of anything of substance to choose from, have finally begun to realize that regardless of which party wins the Presidency, the House, or the Senate; things are likely to go on pretty much the way that they have been. 

And why shouldn't they understand this to be the case?  Republican Administrations expand government as much as Democratic ones do.  Party majorities in the House and Senate make little difference to the mountain of debt and the growing entitlement mentality that Washington continues to embrace and expand.  The mock battles that occur on the floor of the legislature or between it and the White House, more often appear to be both badly scripted and poorly performed, with their outcome as predetermined as a wrestling match.  The dramatic but counterfeit carnage created by these supposedly epic battles proves all but bloodless, and the allegedly hard fought peace that's eventually forged seems more like pointless capitulation than the common ground compromise that the combatants celebrate with a mixture of sadness and ceremony.

While there's little surprise that a weary audience has already lost much of its interest, perhaps there's a method to this madness as well.  Perhaps it's the hope of the two great acting troupes that by wearing down even the most dedicated part of the audience, our gratitude for the process finally ending will be so great that we will at least for a while ignore the fact that nothing has really changed.  Perhaps there is a method to the madness of the lengthy performance of this tawdry play, with the directors working feverishly behind the scenes to manipulate the 'sheeple' that most have become into quietly returning to the herd.

And while some few may remain untouched, crying out in anguish at the tired melodrama that they've been subjected to for little amusement and no entertainment; most will instead gratefully return to find out which "American Idol" will next be "Dancing with the Stars", and celebrating the political actors that haven't been voted off "Survivor: Washington DC".  Few indeed will recognize that the real "Undercover Bosses" of this nation have once again worked their magic, and that it's only in their efforts that we discover that "America's Got Talent".  It may make for little more than a Bread and Circuses form of entertainment for the masses, but for me it's far to much drama for far too little effect.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TFP Column: Political Telemarketing

One of the few things more annoying than the endless political debates and even more endless coverage of the primaries is the seemingly endless polling that the candidates and incumbent use not only to guide their next public pronouncements, but eventually to govern.

In "Political Telemarketing", I've got a few things to say about the difficulty of the process of obtaining accurate information (or even getting people to answer the phone), about the twisted uses that such information is eventually put to, and about the monkey wrench that I, for one, would like to throw into the process.

It's still early in the week though, and there's like to be a great deal in both the mid-week Star edition and the regular weekend TFP that you'll need to catch up on.  My suggestion would be to make sure to set a little time aside for Toledo's largest Sunday circulation and best weekly newspaper for three straight years, the Toledo Free Press.

(For those who can't help but notice, yes I mangled the last paragraph rather badly.  I am working with Editor-in-Chief Michael Miller, and I hope to have it modified soon to something more closely resembling the English language.)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vote of Confidence: Chapter 13

Continuing to surprise even myself, I remain on schedule with getting new efforts posted on the VOC site.  In fact, I am almost complete with the editing process as we speak.  I am pleased therefore to let you know that Chapter 13 of “Vote of Confidence” is now up for review and comment. We're well past the half-way point now, and I hope to have the last chapters up in the next couple of months (unless I add more material than I expect).

Though I have previously described this story as “A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals”. Any of you that have come this far in the effort however, know by now that none of these accusations has been proven, and that in as far as I know, no actual animals were in any way harmed (physically or psychologically) during the completion of this story.

I would love to be able to give you some insight into what has gone before or will come after, but that would imply a remembrance of what has gone before or a knowledge of where it's going to, a rumor which I can neither confirm nor deny. (Besides, not doing so adds a bit of mystery to the whole thing, don't you think?)

Since every writer likes to be read, and since I like to sometimes believe that I'm a writer, I encourage you to take a look at this effort. While I can't promise that you will get any of the time back that you spend in doing so, I can say that you might yet be a bit surprised.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

March Terror Alert: IRISH

As I have oft times stated, the Department of Just Blowing Smoke Security (DJBSS) works tirelessly to root out potential terrorists threats in this nation. (OK, so I lied ...)  So maybe not tirelessly, but they do a pretty fair job when we can actually sober them up and get their heads out of jumbo-sized bags of Cheetos randomly scattered about the attic that we keep them locked in.  Their efforts  have in fact done quite an astonishing job over the years of notifying the public about impending threats from organizations that few, if any, has ever heard of before. (And in spite of the lack of credit that they are given and the  low esteem in which they are held, including by me, they have still proved more effective in threat protection for this country than the TSA.)

For some strange reason, they slipped out an alert last night from under the door to their headquarters / research center (the previously mentioned attic) for March, while February has yet a few days remaining. While advance warning is always a valuable asset, and not that this notification (unlike the last one) couldn't be considered a legitimate report of a potential threat; but once again it presents an uncomfortable situation where the organization in question is concerned.  

For the second time in as many months, the threat in question comes from a group to which I retain a membership.  While there was a brief discussion as to whether an actual warning needed to be issued, in the end the Editorial Staff agreed that they had no authority to subvert the jurisdiction granted to the DJBSS.  (Unlike some organizations that I could name, we at "Just Blowing Smoke" recognize and fully accept the concept of the 'Separation of Powers'.)

Therefore an official terror alert is being issued against the IRISH. Now for those perhaps familiar with the nationality, but unfamiliar with this group; I am speaking of course of the Intoxicated Reprobates Indulging in St Patrick's Honor. 

While normally harmless, this bunch of miscreants does tend to raise a bit of a ruckus during the month of March, especially in the days surrounding the 17th, which to them is a combination of the rites of the Winter Solstice, Chinese New Years, Mardi Gras, the Fourth of July, and Christmas.

While this organization is always about (though most likely only noticeable when gathered in larger groups in Pubs around the country), it tends to become more visible in the month of March, becomes downright hard to miss as the middle of the month approaches, and it becomes damned near impossible to keep from tripping over their alcohol-anesthetized forms on the 16th and 17th.  Have no fear of them however.  They will likely be pursuing their own arcane rituals, which though you may find them occasionally bizarre and completely without logic or reason, pose no immediate threat to you. Most will in fact be preoccupied with other IRISH members, and are likely to be paying you little if any heed. 

(I could of course, attempt to explain the logic and reason behind those rituals, so as to clear up this little problem for you; but doing so would likely cause me to suffer the immediate loss of a membership I treasure for no better reason than your peace of mind.  Not a chance ...)  

You should be aware that while you may run into a number of cells of this organization during this mid-month period, you may also run into groups of look-alike IRISH. While ostensibly carrying the general appearance of  members, they are in fact merely poor copies content to wear silly T-shirts and lighted shamrocks with the names of American beer companies on them in a misguided attempt to pay homage to the spirit of ceremonies that they clearly don't understand.  Since such groups constitute little more than twisted shadows of the original and often have a great number of misconceptions as to the rituals of the true organization, confronting them or participating in the rites of such faux assemblages should be done only at your own risk.
Now while they can be boisterous at times, real IRISH tend to be prone to bouts of lyrical pontification and melancholy singing rather than the fisticuffs of popular legend.  This is especially true later in the day after the 'Indulging' part of their organization's name has been participated in long enough to allow the 'Intoxicated' part to come into full bloom.  While they can be a bit touchy if the subject of the English is brought up in conversation, such danger can usually be averted by quickly offering to buy them a drink.

Do not however:
  1. Attempt to convince them that the green versions of Anheuser Bush or Miller products are in fact 'IRISH Beer'. The Coors product Killian's also falls under this category in spite of its name, and is best not mentioned.
  2. Attempt to buy them one of these beers, or a 'whiskey' made in Scotland, Canada, Kentucky, or Tennessee.  While they might gladly accept such an invitation any other time, partaking of such beverages during these holy days of obligation is a strict violation of rules, and more ... a mortal sin that would damn their souls for eternity.
  3. Attempt to convince them that whiskey was first invented by the residents of  Scotland.
  4. Tell them that you don't like to drink Guinness unless it's "really, really cold". 
  5. Attempt to convince them that the bagpipe is in fact a Scottish instrument, since they know better and may seek to prove it by finding one and playing it.
  6. Ask them if the IRISH are a belligerent race, as carried away in a spirit of holiday giving, they may feel compelled to oblige you, in spite of their better instincts. 
For those of you who feel inclined to report the appearance of one of these cells or any incidents by them that might occur, you're more than welcome to contact the DJBSS at 1-800-RAT-BUTT; but it's likely that you'll have to leave a message. The odds favor the fact that none of the DJBSS staff will be in the office, though some of them will probably be a part of the group that you're trying to report.  (Attempts to report such incidents in person to the DJBSS are likely to meet with the same reaction as bringing up the subject of the English, so if you do so, keep your wallet handy.)   

Therefore, in light of the limited threat that the IRISH pose, and in honor of their upcoming annual celebration, the terror threat for this period will be placed at GREEN.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Learning Economics From An iPad

Far too often, books about and teachers of economics attempt to give us theoretical answers to questions on the subject as illustrations of their knowledge and wisdom.  Whether from the Austrian school or the Keynesian one, these answers begin with the assumption that their theory is correct and that certain answers will be the result, on the basis of their theoretical assumptions.

I don't know about you, but I'm a skeptic by nature and training.  I tend to reject out of hand solutions that are correct only 'in theory'.  They tend to have the same accuracy level as a coin flip, and since they don't or can't show the work used to reach them ... they are sometimes even less credible.  So I decided to see what happened if you worked an economics problem in the real world, using the facts that we know and some assumptions taken from other areas of capitalism to bolster the credibility of our calculations.

I decided to use the i Pad as the basis for this little experiment, not because I have one, but because of the recent furor over the pay rates of the workers of the Foxconn factory in China that makes them. I also chose it because there seems to be a bit of a stink (pun intended) about the conditions of this plant and why these devices are not being assembled in this country by a company that seems to be doing very well while based here.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I'm not a fan of Apple; and that my only concession to it is my I tunes account, begun when it was the only legal music download alternative.  I have a natural abhorrence for Apple products, cool as they are, because the company's proprietary application restrictions prevents anyone from playing their game on their home field.

Let's begin with some 'facts' to enter into our equation (and remember, I'm trying to keep this simple):

- The current i Pad 2 carries a price tag of anywhere from $499 to $829 (depending on the specs of the unit), so for the sake of argument and in the hopes of making calculations simple, let's set the price of the device at a median of $650. 
- The wage earned by the average worker, at least according to the ABC report on Foxconn, is $1.78 per hour.
- The Minimum wage in the United States is $7.25.
- The Minimum wage in the State of California, where Apple's Cupertino headquarters is located is $8.25.
- China's environmental restrictions for manufacturing are close enough to being non-existent so that they need not be considered; those in California are the toughest in the nation.

Bear with me and follow closely as I attempt to exhibit my supremely inferior maths skills, in combination with some knowledge that I picked up as the Director of Operations for an equipment manufacturing plant down in Georgia.

There are two types of cost in any given product.  There is a simple cost, which includes the cost of the materials alone; then there are 'burdened costs', which take into account the cost of overhead (including labor, building, regulatory compliance, etc.) and fully burdened costs (which take into account the costs of Administration, sales, marketing, and profit).  In order to make a profit and stay in business, a company must sell its product for at or for more than this fully burdened cost, which would include manufacturing costs plus administrative costs.  (This must have been the part of capitalism or a business plan that many of the 'green energy companies failed to understand.)

Now if we start off with the assumption that the unburdened cost of materials is about half of the final sell price (a pretty good assumption based on my past experience), we start with a base cost of $325.

$325 x 1.4 (40% for mfg overhead) = $455
$455 x 1.4 (40% for Admin overhead) = $637, pretty close to our original $650 number, which shows that most likely my assumptions on cost and burdening factors still hold true; and likewise showing a modest additional profit of $13 to be shared between plowing money back into the company and dividends for stockholders if I were strictly correct.

But that's all based on wage costs at Foxconn in China....

Now if we move our manufacturing facility back to the good old USA and build near the Corporate headquarters, our costs are going to go up.  Why our labor rates alone will see an increase of 460%, and the building, property, regulatory costs and taxes (CA is a high tax and regulation state after all) are likely to go up correspondingly.  But again for the sake of argument, let's use the wage rate as what is probably a pretty accurate bellwether of such cost increases.

$325 x 6.44 = $2,093 (our original 1.4 markup multiplied by 4.6 times to cover the increase in salary alone that go from $1.78 to $8.25 per hour, as well as the increased real estate and regulatory costs of operating in CA), and now we have our burdened cost.
$2,093 x 1.4 = $2,930.20 for our fully burdened cost. (We'll give ourselves a break and assume that our Admin costs are and always will be a US cost.) 

Now remember that in this example, I just used a minimum wage comparison in CA.  It seems highly unlikely that such a manufacturing operation would be allowed to operate with workers at minimum wage.  Far more likely in fact is that it would be a union assembly plant.  Now again, just to keep me from taking off my shoes and socks to perform the calculations, let's say that union scale is 10 times the $1.78 per hour in China, or $17.80 per hour (certainly not an unreasonable union wage, especially on the West Coast).

(Building, taxes and regulations and real estate won't increase, but with wages going up and staying up, I'll be nice and use the 1000% increase in labor previously mentioned to equal a total 8.5 times increase of the 1.4 burdened costs for a total cost factor of 12 )
$325 x 12 = $3,900 is now the calculations for our burdened cost.
$3,900 x 1.4 = $5,460 (again using the fixed Admin burden) gives us the fully burdened cost of an i Pad 2.

What is the likelihood that the i Pad would be as popular, or even a marketable product, at a price approaching these levels?  How likely would Apple be to even bring such a product to market, let alone to be 'knocked off' by other manufacturers, if this were the case?

Come to think of it, what do you think would be the cost of those fancy tennis shoes, those designer jeans, or hundreds of other products manufactured in factories around the world if similar math were applied to them.  Now while you are digesting that, ask yourself what kind of wages you would have to earn in order to be able to afford such products in your daily life.  Then ask what earning such wages would in turn do to the original calculations used for moving such manufacturing processes back into the US. (But don't do the calculations more than once, since the answer is a runaway spiral of costs and price that never ends.)

Now lest you think that my efforts here are purely selfish and uncaring (remembering that I am an unreconstructed Capitalist), what would losing all of these jobs do to the lives of employees in China?  Having perhaps taken away the jobs of these workers around the world for all of these products, how would they be expected to feed their families?  If we left these jobs in place but raised the salaries of the workers and working conditions of the factories in China to our levels, what would that do to the cost of the items just calculated? 
(Oh you don't care about these foreign workers as long as these jobs can be brought back to this country?  Who's being selfish now?)

See ... It's amazing the economics that you can learn on an i Pad, even if you don't own or use one.  

So endeth the lesson ....


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

TFP Column: Titanic Proportions

I truly intended to get a mid-week posting up on time this week; but the more I worked on the effort, the more it became apparent that the effort fit more with the TFP than with JBS. (I will still do a mid-week effort, but it may be a day late ... or so.)

With that in mind, I turned this effort over to Editor-in-Chief Michael Miller (who's work on the upcoming Titanic event in fact instigated this week's column).  Michael, kind soul that he is and ever willing to attempt to save a drowning man a lifesaver (cherry, my favorite) agreed to publish "Titanic Proportions" on the website.  While the piece is not about my ongoing battle of the bulge, you might find it interesting as exercise in tying two things together that shouldn't normally find themselves in close proximity (you know, like steamships and icebergs).  

Since this is happening in the middle of the week, you will find it while reading the mid-week Star Edition on the website; but I'm sure that there will be even more promising efforts there as well in the weekend edition of that which remains the largest Sunday circulation newspaper in Toledo, and Ohio's Best Weekly Newspaper for the third year in a row, the Toledo Free Press.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vote of Confidence: Chapter 12

Continuing to surprise even myself, I remain on schedule with getting new efforts posted on the VOC site.  I am pleased therefore to let you know that Chapter 12 of “Vote of Confidence” is now up for review and comment. We're past the half-way point now, and I hope to have the last eight chapters up in the next couple of months (unless I add more than I expect).

Though I have previously described this story as “A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals”. In the spirit of full disclosure however, I have to say that none of these accusations has been proven, and that in as far as I know, no actual animals were in any way harmed (physically or psychologically) during the completion of this story.

I would love to be able to give you some insight into what has gone before or will come after, but that would imply that I know or remember anything about this effort, a rumor which I can neither confirm nor deny. (Besides, not doing so adds a bit of mystery to the whole thing, don't you think?)

Since every writer likes to be read, and since I like to sometimes believe that I'm a writer, I encourage you to take a look at this effort. While I can't promise that you will get any of the time back that you spend in doing so, I can say that you might be a bit surprised.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kick The Can

It occurred to me this morning while reading the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal that mine will probably be the last generation in this country to have actually played "Kick the Can".  (It also occurs to me now that giving the WSJ a plug will probably in no way encourage them to give me a discount on that subscription.  Oh well ...)  What does one have to do with the other? I'll bet some of you have already guessed.

Congress, it appears, is the only group now allowed to play this game; denying such opportunities to our youth.  Don't get me wrong.  Getting kids to play the game seems an unlikely prospect at best.  It's hard enough these days to get kids to go outside in the first place, let alone for the purpose of physical exercise; unless of course there's a chance that it will ultimately lead to a professional contract and big buck corporate sponsorships.  And let's face it, in spite of its similarity to game of soccer (football for those of you I know are reading outside the US); its likelihood of becoming the Olympic or professional sport of its higher visibility and equally low-scoring counterpart is about as likely as raising the Titanic this year on the anniversary of its sinking.

It's not that I mind that yet another vague memory of my past has disappeared.  Saturday morning cartoons (and not the androgynous PC crap that was on this morning), the large family gatherings that were possible when clans weren't scattered across the country, and the days when a million dollars was a lot and a trillion dollars was unthinkable are in fact memories that I treasure far more.  (I thought about adding 25 cent per gallon gas, but that memory is simply too painful to contemplate right now.)  What I actually object to is that like so many of the fond memories of my past, this is yet another that has been ruined by the tag team of government and the mainstream media.

The Senate fails to pass a budget in over 1000 days, in spite of the Constitutional mandate to do so, and it's just 'kicking the can' down the road a way.  Congress attempts to fix a Social Security System quickly going bankrupt by reducing the premiums that we pay into the program and are simply giving the foot to the real problem at hand.  The national debt goes up more in the last 3 years than it has in the previous 233 and our national legislature passes budget extensions (again kicking the can) that will only make it worse.  

Kicking the can has become a favorite sport in DC, and one that they are becoming increasingly good at; so good in fact that few even bother to complain when they are playing it instead of doing their jobs.  I wish however, that someone would just once stop punting this tiny receptacle down the road to the next generation (or until they're out of office) long enough to deal with its consequences ... before those consequences begin to deal with us (undoubtedly with a vengeance).

Yes I know that this is election year and that politicians are more concerned than ever about raising campaign money and greasing the palms of donors with a bit of drippings of pork barrel spending; but just once I'd like to see some of them work as hard at doing their job as they seem to be willing to do to keep it. Hell, I'd probably be content if a few of them took a night off from kissing babies and rubber chicken dinners to read the Constitution that they're supposed to protect and defend, or enough of the dictionary to discover that there's a difference between 'finding common ground' and 'compromise'.

While they're busy doing nothing but kicking the can down the road, they might see if they cold keep their grubby shoes off of some of the other cherished memories of my youth.  They need to call off the health cops and leave the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the cheese sandwiches, and the Fritos and Twinkies in my school lunch alone.  They can stop telling kids that they need to exercise, then tell them that they can't play tag, hide and seek, or any other game that might hurt the little crumb-crunchers self-esteem (more than likely as a belated revenge on the part of these narrow-shouldered, pencil neck geeks for not being chosen as kids to play in the first place).  They could stop making every companionable hug you give a friend in the schoolyard a case of sexual harassment; and speaking of sexual, they might want to consider leaving the subject of the sex of little Johnny's parents alone for a while at kindergarten (they probably think sex is kind of 'icky' at age 5 anyway)

As a matter of fact, government might want to take a giant step back from children and games period.  While I'm not ready to call the federal government a pedophile, they do seem to be spending far too much time peeking over the fences of schools and into the windows of homes lately.  Such abhorrent and aberrant behavior in anyone else would call for investigation by the proper authorities.  (Which would leave the government investigating itself, something that it finds itself doing far too often these days.)  

Quite frankly, the whole thing has me to a point where I'd like to kick a little can myself in DC, if I wasn't so sure that such action would be quickly followed by a visit from the FBI, Secret Service, or Department of Homeland Security that required them to take me to a quiet room (perhaps in Gitmo) to discuss my interest in these games of my youth.  (I would be willing to settle for a brisk game of Dodgeball instead, but my sense is that the listed federal agencies would find this an equally unsuitable substitute.)   I'm tired of politicians being the only ones able to play kid's games in this country, and all but dooming my offspring (and my offspring's offspring) by doing so, when they're supposed to be doing the job we elected them for.  I'm sick and tired of paying them an exorbitant salary for sitting with their thumbs up their rectums and telling everyone that will listen that their little bottom hurts from the hard work that they're doing, while the world goes to hell in large part because of their games.

You know, in spite of my dire predictions, the future may ultimately prove me to be wrong.  (I know, you're shocked that I could admit such a thing.)  Perhaps Wii or X-box will develop an electronic kinect version of "Kick the Can" one of these days.  Of course in order to get the attention of today's youthful audience, it will probably involve kicking a can of toxic nuclear waste through a minefield while Middle East terrorists shoot at you with assault rifles and grenade launchers, all while a group of zombies rises up out of the killing field and tries to prevent you from completing your mission by eating you; but it will at least still be Kick the Can

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Someone To Watch Over Me

(My recommendation is to enjoy the video while reading the post.  Trust me when I say that eventually it will all make sense.)

With  a unanimous vote of its City Council, Toledo becomes yet the latest in a growing number of cities to grow the number of cameras within its confines.  These were not the 11 red light cameras that I've written about before, to be added to 32 of their brethren in an effort once touted to promote traffic safety and not for the purpose of generating revenue. That ship sailed long ago after statistics showed that such cameras usually increase the number of rear end collisions in the intersections they're placed in and Toledo admitted that there was money to be made. But in cities like Toledo across the country that are starved for new sources of revenue in a tough economy, threatened by countless programs that they can't afford and buried under bloated union contracts for their safety workers, little more could be expected of elected officials who seldom consider the law of unintended consequences where their actions are concerned.

No, the vote this week was to purchase a different kind of cameras entirely; or more accurately, 150 of such cameras at a cost of $1.6 million.  In addition to the cameras, the city intends to use 4 members of a police department that many already claim is under-staffed to monitor them.  This program will be instituted (perhaps as a first step) in a technological effort for crime prevention and enforcement in the downtown and/or high crime areas of the Glass City.

Toledo is far from being alone in the installation of such cameras, and in fact might seem to have some way to go in order to compete with its 'Big Brothers' (George Orwell pun intended).  A  Wall Street Journal article from over two years ago points to an estimated 15,000 such cameras, in both public and private ownership, that are linked in Chicago to what the city calls "Operation Virtual Shield".  

New York City has a similar set up, though the last estimate on the number of cameras that I could find is probably woefully out-of date in a NYCLU report from 2006.  The maps contained in this report showing the locations of these cameras blanketing the city in various areas however, should be enough to frighten anyone (perhaps even more than the crime that they are supposed to monitor).  

London however has far and away taken the technological lead in city surveillance however, with estimates according to a British Channel 4 report from back in 2008 that there are 350-500,000 cameras under public or private ownership that are available to the local constabulary to monitor its citizens.

(Cities are notoriously recalcitrant in releasing the actual numbers of such cameras in use.  Go figure.  It seems rather strange not to do so however, if their intent is to, as they often tout, prevent crimes from occurring.) 

No ... make no mistake.  Regardless of the breast beating and dire warnings, this is not about crime prevention.  A camera can no more prevent a crime from happening than it can capture the perpetrator of that crime.  It can only take a picture (often rather poorly lighted and blurry) of the perpetrator in the act of committing it.  While these electronic sentinels may potentially contribute to reduced response times by police to such crimes, no statistics that I was able to uncover were able to document such an advantage.  And while they may make it somewhat easier to eventually track down the suspect and inevitably easier to convict them if they do, it will do nothing to protect citizens from either the crimes themselves or from the potential that the same crimes will be committed in the future.

What it will do however is remind everyone in the Glass City, and others around world that no matter where they are, someone is probably watching.  We're told that if we're not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to worry about, but we were told the same thing when TSA told us that making us safer would only prove a minor inconvenience.  We were told the same when the Patriot Act was passed to aid the good guys in catching the bad ones.

No, the answer here is as simple as it is subtle.  We have nothing to worry about as long as we aren't concerned about a level of government's ability to monitor its citizens without the protection of a legally issued warrant.  We have nothing to worry about as long as we are willing to give up our liberty and rights of privacy to achieve a purported level of safety on a public street. (Can anyone else remember what Benjamin Franklin said about liberty and safety?)  We have nothing to worry about as long as we blindly believe in the altruism of government officials and law enforcement agencies, that such surveillance will not become over time a not-so-subtle form of behavior modification.  We have nothing to worry about unless we're afraid to live with a bunker mentality where everyone is watching over their own shoulders to see who else is watching.

While I chose to entertain you with a rather eclectic Sting rendition of a classic George and Ira Gershwin tune from 1926, it doesn't require me to slip on my tin foil hat to tell you that I'm anything but comforted in knowing that no matter where I am, soon there will undoubtedly be "Someone to Watch Over Me".


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TFP Column: Campaign 2012 - Open Mouth, Insert Foot

In continuing to watch this year's campaign for the Republican nomination for President, I have to say that I haven't seen this many verbal faux pas since the last time that I attempted to be a substitute host for 1370 WSPD's "Eye on Toledo".  Not being able to help noticing these little errors, I found myself putting together "Campaign 2012 - Open Mouth, Insert Foot". 

Of course I suppose such incidents are only natural in these days when not only are we living in a 24-hour a day news cycle, but when everybody with a cell phone can record the times that you have trouble getting a coherent word out around the leg appendage you find stuck in your pie hole.  For those of you overly concerned that this might reduce the number of candidates available for the highest office in the land or be a single party problem, of that this condition might be Republican Party related I include a few similar verbal miscues from our current commander-in-chief.

Fortunately, there is likely to be far more intelligent and erudite efforts to be found already in the TFP's midweek Star edition, and I'm sure that we will have even more as we get to the newspaper that's #1 in Sunday circulation in Toledo, as well as Ohio's Best Weekly paper, the Toledo Free Press. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

Being a Curmudgeon sometimes carries terrible responsibilities, and one of them is occasionally bursting the bubble on the humbug that society often perpetrates on itself. Today's particular bit of nonsense is today's Hallmark Holiday, one more commonly known as Valentine's Day.  

Originally known as St Valentine's Day, it was a celebration of the Catholic martyrs born on this day. The holiday was rather confusing however, as the Catholic Church originally recognized eleven St Valentines, only two of whom were given homage on February 14th. Perhaps even more confusing (and wonderfully ironic) is that the holiday dedicated to the concept of romantic love was originally designed to celebrate the birth of a Roman Catholic priest (Valentine of Rome) and a Catholic bishop (Valentine of Terni), both of whom were sworn to celibacy.
Others trace the holiday and its rituals to the pagan worship of Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage. Like many other pagan holidays, it's said that they and their practices were simply co-opted by the early Catholic Church and used for their own purposes. Without boring you with the history of the holiday through the ages; I can say that it managed to survive through the Middle Ages and had evolved into the practice of giving cards by the 19th Century (with North America following England in doing so). The first commercially mass produced Valentine's Day cards in the US appeared around 1847 in Massachusetts.  

Of course growing up in Chicago, we were never allowed to forget that of 1929, when six members of the George "Bugs" Moran gang and Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer were gunned down in a Chicago garage in the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre". The primary target, Bugs Moran, managed to be absent from the event and survived to see many more St. Valentine's Days before dying of cancer in 1957. Credit for the "hit" was given to Al Capone and his henchmen, though no one was actually convicted of the crime. Al himself, in further holiday irony, died of cardiac arrest in 1947 likely linked to Syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) that he had contracted years before.  

Today however, anyone showing up with nothing but a card (or a machine gun) in hand will likely receive a chilly reception on this winter holiday of romance. Like many other gift-giving holidays, rampant consumerism has long since taken over the true spirit of the day. Candy, teddy bears, lingerie (pajamas for those of you of a less libidinous inclination), flowers, and dinner are now the expected minimum offerings to show a loved one you care. Anyone with true feelings for a significant other on this day however, will cough up enough for jewelry or a car (nothing says love like a new pickup truck, after all)

 Now just to prove that I am not entirely without a heart where this day is concerned (no jokes about conservatives here please), I will point out that I got married for the first time on Valentine's Day. I'm sure that there are some cynics out there who might say that I did so, not out of a true sense of romance, but instead in a miserly effort to save myself from having to buy the woman in question jewelry that year.  Others might see more of a long term strategy in combining the future burdens of both a Valentines Day and Anniversary presents in every year after (but who would believe that I could be that clever). 

In the spirit of full faith and disclosure, I will also point out that I admitted to the date of that first marriage early in my relationship to my 2nd wife, thereby eliminating Valentines Day as a romantic holiday for us. (She didn't want to celebrate the anniversary of my first marriage, go figure ...) 

I'm actually sorry to say that I will be without romantic entanglement again this year on Valentine's Day (evidently Curmudgeons [or at least this one] do not apparently cut the romantic figure that they once did), but take some consolation in the fact that I will also not be caught up in the commercial madness that the day has become. Besides, I consider myself an incurable romantic (you could tell from this posting, right?), and limiting myself expressions of affection on a single day would be incomprehensible. 

In fact, I would have to say that anyone who places all of their romantic eggs in this one basket can make no such similar claim. I will go further and say that any man who only shows that he cares on Valentines Day can make no claim to manhood at all, and any relationship which requires a day to remind two people of the love and affection that they feel for each other is probably doomed already. 

I will therefore call out this Hallmark Holiday for what it is, a sham and a humbug, ill used to celebrate what true romance is all about; and a weak excuse to firm up the bottom lines of candy makers, jewelers and florists. Having now gotten that off of my chest, and while wearing my heart on my sleeve ... Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Vote of Confidence: Chapter 11

Surprising even myself, I continue to remain on schedule with getting new efforts posted on the VOC site.  I am pleased therefore to let you know that Chapter 11 of “Vote of Confidence” is now up for review and comment.

Through I have previously described this story as “A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals”. In the spirit of full disclosure however, I have to say that none of these accusations has been proven, and that in as far as I know, no actual animals were in any way harmed (physically or psychologically) during the completion of this story.

I would love to be able to give you some insight into what has gone before or will come after, but that would imply that I know or remember anything about this effort, a rumor which I can neither confirm nor deny. (Besides, not doing so adds a bit of mystery to the whole thing, don't you think?)

Since every writer likes to be read, and since I like to sometimes believe that I'm a writer, I encourage you to take a look at this effort. While I can't promise that you will get any of the time back that you spend in doing so, I can say that you might be a bit surprised.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

No Terror Threat At All: VISA

The Department of Just Blowing Smoke Security (DJBSS) has over the years, worked tirelessly to keep the general public informed on terrorist organizations. Well, maybe not tirelessly, but they do work hard from time to time at gathering information and assessing relative threat levels where … OK, when we can actually sober up members of the DJBSS or get their heads out of jumbo-sized bags of Cheetos randomly scattered about the attic that we keep them locked in, they do a reasonable job of notifying the public about threats from organizations that nobody's ever heard of before. (And in spite of the disparaging remarks made about them, including by me, they have still proved more effective in threat protection than the TSA.)

It was they after all, who outed the travel nemesis known as the ADL (Anti-Destination League), the electronic threat of TROLL's (Terrible Responses in Otherwise Legitimate Locations) in the blogosphere, the forecasting doomsayers better known as WACKO's (Weather Anticipation Crisis Kibitzer Organization), identified the telecommunication onslaught of SHIT's (Society of Harassing Imitation Telemarketers), they who outed the attempted development of a Super Terrorist (a combination of a socially progressive liberal, a rabid environmentalist, and a religious fundamentalist) and of course they who released the new definition of TERRORISM itself (Taxing Evil Rich to Reduce Obligations Resulting from an Immoderate government Spending Movement).

(If you missed any of these earlier alerts, simply do a search in this blog with terrorism as the key word.)

This weekend however, an alert was slipped out from under the door of the DJBSS research center (the aforementioned attic) that was a bit of a surprise. It's a group that has not been hatching plans for lighting the fires of dissent in the nation (and in fact has trouble both lighting fires and making plans), has committed no overt acts against the general populace (though many of them should perhaps, be committed), and poses no risk to anyone's safety (well, other than themselves maybe). More surprising to me however, is that it's an organization that I belong to: the Village Idiot Society of America.

First, let me say that VISA has nothing to do with the credit card company using the same name, and we have been around far longer. (There's a rumor that the card's slogan "we're everywhere you want to be" originated with the Village Idiots of VISA, who've said for years, "we're everywhere, whether you want us there or not". No copyright infringement charge for the name or slogan usage has ever been filed however, possibly over concern of interfering with non-member Idiots in the legal profession.)

For those of you who may be concerned about VISA, let me say first that whether you realized it or not, there have long been Village Idiots in each and every community in this country, with larger municipalities having multiple members in proportion to their populations (and some who will remain unnamed, with staggering numbers in proportion to their populations)Having been a card-carrying member in good standing for longer than I can remember, I am pleased to find that I have been welcomed by local Village Idiots and had my membership updated after each relocation that I've made over the years. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that membership is not defined through the actual possession of a card as such, but something more like an old grocery store receipt with a secret code word scrawled illegibly on the back. You'll never get me to get me to reveal the nature of this word to you however, even under torture.  This is not out of a sense of blind courage, but more that I seem to have misplaced my sales slip somewhere; and even when I had it ... I couldn't read the word.)

Now many assume that the highest concentration of Village Idiots in the US is in Washington DC, and while such an assumption is natural enough, such information is both misleading and incorrect. While there are certainly more Idiots per square mile in Washington DC than in any other location in the US (with the possible exception of the couple of blocks surrounding the UN Building in New York City), few of those in DC (and none in the UN) are certified members of VISA. All in both locations in fact normally find their submitted applications summarily rejected through regular violation of VISA's first rule, “Do no harm”. (Come to think of it, this may be our only rule. We tend not be very good about making rules and often have trouble remembering them.)

Real Village Idiots are much harder to identify than you might think in fact, and are often little discernible from the general public. They can generally be distinguished upon close examination however, by the rather vague expressions that they wear, their apparent lack of focus on the world around them, their complete
inability to answer simple questions put to them, and their willingness to smile for no apparent reason. (Wow, now I've probably got them even more confused with politicians …. sorry.)

Unlike their amateur counterparts in politics however, the real thing are much like the Ford Dent character describes Earth in Douglas Adam's “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, “Mostly harmless”. They go their own way, doing their own thing; and occasionally speaking truth to power at the most inconvenient times and in a mostly nonsensical fashion (some of us more than others with that last part). The actual truth and timeliness of such statements often going largely unrecognized until those being spoken to or about get past agreeing that person who made the statement was a rather 'odd sort of person'.

While the position isn't compensated particularly well, we do have some really wonderful Village Idiot conventions, filled with symposiums, lectures, and advanced training in idiotic behavior; interspersed with holding competitions in:

  • Who can wear the most things that don't go with any of the other things they're wearing.
  • Who can hold a vague expression for the longest period without cracking a smile (I've won this one the last five years running, but I think it's because I only have one expression.)
  • Best fall from a sitting position (extra points are awarded for the height of the seat).
  • Best response to the question: “What are you, an idiot or something?”

If confronted by a Village Idiot, please feel free to call us at 1-800-RAT-BUTT (the PC code for saying, "Like I give a rat's ass"). While there is no danger in such an encounter, it's nice for those of us in VISA to know where our membership is these days (especially since they don't often know themselves). In fact, try and get an address or phone number if you can before calling, so we can try and get in touch with these Idiots later.

In spite of the apparently dire warnings of the DJBSS (something that we will discuss with them later while delivering more booze and Cheetos to the attic), the editorial staff at “Just Blowing Smoke” is still leaving the terror threat at pink; since it's the most harmless color we can think of.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

TFP Column: The Lead Dog

Last week I got an early start in my efforts and found myself well ahead of my compatriots in getting it posted.  This week I may even be a little late in getting something together, and find myself further back in the pack in getting published.

Strangely enough, this type of jockeying for position in the Republican Primary is the subject of this week column: "The Lead Dog".  I'm not sure why most of us should care about the results, even at this point (since there are still 33-1/2 primaries to go), but I suppose that your relative position could have some impact on your ability to raise money; regardless of your ability to raise interest in the process.

While primary news may be of dubious benefit to the Glass City, there will undoubtedly be a lot more of interest in this weekend's edition.  Considering that we're talking about Toledo's largest Sunday circulation and Ohio's best weekly newspaper for the third year in a row, the Toledo Free Press; why would that surprise you?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Law"

Time and circumstance permit me a very little of the former to share something with you in the middle of the week. However, you're in luck.  Over the years and with the help of some pretty damn smart people that I've been lucky enough to know, I have slowly been gaining a bit of knowledge. Such knowledge, when acquired at all, is usually done by reading the words of much smarter people than me (a list almost as long as that of the National Register). The best of that knowledge was acquired by reading original source material.

Thanks to their advice, I am  able to say that I am becoming a good deal closer to the thinking of such giants as Thomas Sowell, Walter E Williams, Henry Hazlitt, and Milton Friedman (among others) whose books I have read. Many of these scholars and pundits have in turn referenced a writer from the 19th Century, Frederic Bastiat, in tying their efforts to those of the past. More specifically they reference an essay of his first published in 1850, “The Law”.

With these limitations in mind, I am would like to share some brief part of that which I am currently reading. I hope that you appreciate it in the same way that I have, and promise to come up with something more original for the weekend.

Since everybody traffics in law for his own profit, we should like to do the same. We should like to make it produce the right to assistance, which is the poor man's plunder. To effect this, we ought to be electors and legislators, that we may organize, on a large scale, alms for our own class, as you have organized, on a large scale, protection for yours.”

Yes, as long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true mission, that it may violate property instead of securing it, everybody will be wanting to manufacture law, either to defend himself against plunder, or to organize it for his own profit.”

This plunder may be only an exceptional blemish in the legislation of a people, and in this case, the best thing that can be done is, without so many speeches and lamentations, to do away with it as soon as possible, notwithstanding the clamors of interested parties. But how is it to be distinguished? Very easily. See whether the law takes from some persons that which belongs to them, to give to others what does not belong to them. See whether the law performs for the profit of one citizen, and, to the injury of others, an act that this citizen cannot perform without committing a crime.”

And this is what has taken place. The delusion of the day is to enrich all classes at the expense of each other; it is to generalize plunder under the pretense of organizing it. Now, legal plunder may be exercised in an infinite multitude of plans for organization; tariffs, protection, perquisites, gratuities, encouragements, progressive taxation, free public education, right to work, right to profit, right to wages, right to assistance, right to instruments of labor, gratuity of credit, etc., etc. And it is all these plans, taken as a whole, with what they have in common, legal plunder, that takes the name of socialism.” 


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Vote of Confidence: Chapter 10

Through diligent effort, hard work, and superior time management skills, I remain on schedule with posting additions to this effort.  (OK, you got me.  The weather sucked this weekend and I didn't have anything better to do than work on a self-serving bit of nonsense.)

Regardless of the reason however, I am pleased to tell you that Chapter 10 of "Vote of Confidence" has been posted.  For those of you who can't wait to get to the end (or can't wait to get the whole thing over with), I can also tell you that half of the chapters are now up.

Through I have previously described this story as “A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals”. In the spirit of full disclosure however, I have to say that none of these accusations has been proven, and that in as far as I know, no actual animals were in any way harmed (physically or psychologically) during the completion of this story.

I would love to be able to give you some insight into what has gone before or will come after, but that would imply that I know or remember anything about this effort, a rumor which I can neither confirm nor deny. (Besides, not doing so adds a bit of mystery to the whole thing, don't you think?)

Since every writer likes to be read, and since I like to sometimes believe that I'm a writer, I encourage you to take a look at this effort. While I can't promise that you will get any of the time back that you spend in doing so, I can say that you might be a bit surprised.